Nasiru had been quiet throughout the shooting, up until now, eerily calm inside even as he saw what had appeared before them all. He wasn’t one to give in to fear. He couldn’t explain it, his lack of fear. He had always been that way ever since he’d been a kid. Once, when he was eleven, a man had come to rob his family on a Sunday afternoon. He always remembered that day because of the heat; it had been stiflingly hot. He also always remembered it because it was the first time he’d killed a man.
He’d been in the kitchen, looking for a plate to take some food, when the robber kicked the front door in. While the robber barked commands in the living room, Nasiru had flattened himself against the wall instead of running out. Despite the screaming of his mother and sisters and brother, he’d remained calm, calm enough to pick up a knife from the kitchen table. Approaching footsteps had made him slip into the darkness of the kitchen store. He’d stayed quiet throughout the cacophony of slamming doors and curses and cries and whimpering, a cold detachment stealing over him. And when the armed robber had passed in front of him, waving his gun about, he’d waited until the robber had turned his back on him, screaming for him to come out. When he came out he was silent and swift, curling both hands on the hilt of the knife, and he jumped, knife held up above him in a downward grip. Sometimes when death comes, you look over your shoulder and you get a glimpse of it. The robber turned at that moment, and his last sight on earth was that of a cold face bearing down from above, with death in his hands. The knife severed his jugular vein, and the armed robber died without uttering a sound, his surprise that he was being killed by a kid evident on his face. No one had known what had happened until Nasiru had come out covered in blood.
That was the first time he’d killed.
Ten years and two corpses later, he decided to join the army, and in nine years of active service, including in Cameroon and Liberia, he had developed into a remarkably fearless soldier. His mates had taken to calling him ‘Hercules’.
He didn’t feel so Herculean right now.
He’d seen men die, by his hand or his gun or knife or someone else’s; he’d seen lions, tigers. He’d even seen a ghost or two.
But he’d never seen anything like this…this monster.
For the first time for as long he could remember, Nasiru felt fear.
Chike’s eyes didn’t help matters either.
And then Chike spoke, but the voice was not his own.
“I am Sharluk.”
Oh God no, Reginald thought. The voice that came out of Chike’s mouth was like a loud, harsh, coarse whisper.
“We are the Rakmun.”
Telepathy, Reginald thought again. It is using telepathy somehow to make Chike speak. God help us. He put his hand in his pocket and fingered his Rosary.
Sharluk continued. “There is no hope for you all, for I shall go back and report what we have seen here, and we are coming back here, and when we come we shall come in great numbers.”
Reginald felt his mouth go as dry as a sun-scorched ground.
“All that you know will be laid to waste.”
Nasiru moved, so fast that Reginald didn’t know until he had passed the first Rakmun, which made as if to move but settled back. Nasiru leapt, dagger in the air (Reginald hadn’t seen him take it out), yelling in what sounded like part rage, part fear.
Sharluk said one more thing before it dropped Chike and caught Nasiru by the throat, all in one smooth, fluid motion.
It stepped on Chike’s head, and it burst like a water-melon.
Nasiru, ignoring his inability to breath, drove the dagger into Sharluk’s neck…
…and it just pulled it out with its free hand and tossed the knife away. It landed at Reginald’s feet.
Looking at Nasiru dangling here, fighting to breath, to free himself from the death-grip, he saw fear for the first time on Nasiru’s face and thought, it’s okay to be afraid Nasiru; it’s what makes us human. Then he saw something else that stopped his heart cold.
He saw Sharluk’s wound begin to heal.
He looked at the dagger lying at his feet.
All that you know will be laid to waste.
He picked it, brought out his Rosary and wound it around his right hand; was the Rosary hot or what? He gripped the dagger in his right hand.
He saw Nasiru gasping for air; saw Sharluk look at Nasiru, saw it studying his face, and Reginald got the feeling that Sharluk was trying to amuse itself in its own perverse way.
Fuck you Sharluk, or whatever you call yourself.
The other Rakmun just sat back and watched. In his hand the knife became hot; his hand became hot all the way to his shoulder. He looked down, and blow him if his hand and the knife weren’t glowing; the blade felt longer.
Smiling, then laughing finally, letting loose that laughter that had been caged within him, releasing it from deep within his chest, Reginald took a running leap at Sharluk and launched himself, dagger upraised, hand as strong and steady as a rock, yelling in what seemed like giddy, outrageously righteous rage, yelling…
…and Sharluk caught him by the neck.
The abrupt cessation of movement caused his legs to swing forward, hitting Sharluk’s body. It was like hitting a wall.
“Y-you,” Reginald stuttered as Sharluk’s grip cut off his air supply, making his blood roar in his ears, “will n-never get b-back.” Forcing air painfully into his lungs, he yelled, “NOT ON MY WATCH!”
Reginald drove the dagger to the hilt into Sharluk’s neck and it opened its mouth and filled the air with a shrill, keening sound. Wincing, Reginald pulled the blade down, opening the wound further, as a thick, hot, reddish-black liquid pumped out of the wound. Sharluk released them both. Reginald tore a torso-wide gash across its stomach and Sharluk covered both wounds with both hands, attempting to stop the bleeding. The Rakmun on the left sprang…and landed on the upturned blade. It reared its head back, howling in pain, and Reginald opened its throat. He turned to see the other one on Nasiru, who hit it with the butt of his pistol again and again and again. He called out and Nasiru turned; he tossed the knife and Nasiru caught it and went to work on the Rakmun in fury.
Reginald ran over and pulled him off the beast. “COME ON! THE PORTAL WILL SOON BE OPEN!”
Leaving the blade buried in the beast, Reginald and Nasiru ran as fast as their legs could carry them.
Panting, they both burst out onto the road and looked to their left; they noticed two things:
1: The bus was quite a distance away from them;
2: Further away the air seemed to ripple with dancing colours.
Ignoring the pains they both felt, Reginald and Nasiru ran for the bus as fast as their weary legs could carry them, not like their lives depended on it, but because their lives, and their sanities depended on their making it to the bus in time. They both heard a growl…but it might only have been the wind in their ears. The got to the bus, Reginald on the driver’s side. In the distance the ripple was becoming more pronounced, the colours more prominent. Reginald had to tear his eyes away from the spectacle. Luckily for them the key was still in the ignition. He ignored the blood on the steering wheel as Nasiru yelled “START IT! BE QUICK AND START THIS THING!”
“I’M TRYING!” Reginald yelled back, as the bus coughed once, twice, and died.
“Come on come on come ON!” He pumped the throttle and then tried again, as Nasiru looked frantically about, searching for any threat.
The bus coughed, coughed, sputtered, coughed…and started.
“YES!” Reginald yelled. Throwing the bus in gear, he floored the accelerator. The smell of burning rubber burned his nostrils, but Reginald was beyond caring about that; all he wanted was to get out of this God-forsaken place. The tires sought traction on the road as the car leaped forward. Nasiru looked back; was that a shadow leaping? Must’ve been the sun.
“BUCKLE UP!” Reginald ordered. The portal loomed closer, yet it seemed so far away. And then they both noticed something frightening.
The portal was reducing in size.
The colours seemed to rippling inwards, like they were coalescing at the centre.
“REGINALD STEP ON IT!”
Reginald threw the bus into a higher gear, and the engine growled as the bus ate up the distance, the ripple shrinking, the colours shifting, the bus practically flying now, the colours looming closer, brighter, the engine screaming, Reginald screaming, Nasiru screaming, screaming, closer, screaming, the lights brighter, screa-
It was as if the oxygen had been sucked out of the air as they both struggled to breathe. Reginald kept the pedal floored and they closed their eyes. The light still penetrated. Reginald felt like he was flying through space…
…and then the bus slammed to the ground, and all was still.
Reginald opened one eye, then the other. Somehow, the car had come to rest on the side of the road. Looking out the windshield, the first thing he saw was a hawk , soaring lazily in the air, and he wanted to break down and cry. A hawk had never looked more beautiful. He filled his lungs with sweet, sweet air. His ears registered the sounds; birds, rustling leaves, the breeze, a vehicle. A saying popped into his head; You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. How true.
He turned to look at Nasiru, who lay back with his eyes closed, a smile of contentment on his face. He looked like a man who had died happy, and Reginald was afraid until he noticed the slow rise and fall of his chest.
“We…we made it, didn’t we?” Nasiru asked.
Reginald nodded, and then realizing Nasiru’s eyes were closed, said “Yes.”
Only then did Nasiru open his eyes.
Reginald noticed something else then; he could see Nasiru clearly, even though it was early evening, and they were inside a bus. The interior was too bright… Reginald looked up. No roof.
It had been sheared off cleanly. His jaw dropped as he gazed at the sky through the space where the roof had been. Nasiru looked up, realized what Reginald was seeing, or rather what he wasn’t seeing, and shrugged tiredly.
“Who cares?” Nasiru asked.
Reginald shrugged and asked Nasiru where he was going. He looked down; his bag had miraculously stayed on all through the madness. Thank God for small mercies.
“Home man,” Nasiru replied. “Home, a bath, and a nice, long sleep. No food. Just sleep. You?”
“I was going to see my Dad over in Owerri. He’s sick. Hospitalized. Heart attack. I can’t get there until tomorrow ’cos I need what you need too.” He looked out the windshield, saw the cars that passed. “I just wonder how to explain all that happened here today.”
Nasiru turned to look at him. “Who said anybody has to know?” He stuck out his hand. “Nice knowing you man.”
“Same here. Thanks. You saved my life.” Reginald looked down, saw that he was still wearing his Rosary.
“No Reginald. You saved my life. This soldier will live to fight another day.” They looked at each other and something passed between them, an understanding between men who have seen the face of Death and have survived. Reginald rummaged in his bag, brought out his card and handed it to Nasiru, who took it wordlessly. “Call me,” Reginald said. He pushed the door open and got out of the bus. The side was scraped, the paint missing in some places. Reginald walked off a while, then turned and raised a fist in a salute. Nasiru did the same.
Reginald flagged down a bike and got on. Before the bike took off, he turned to look at the bus one more time.
It was empty. Reginald shrugged, but before he could look around for Nasiru, the bike took off into the sunset.
Where Nasiru had been, there was nothing but blood stains, both new and old.
From within the forest, a pair of black, soulless eyes watched Reginald’s receding back.
From somewhere within the forest came a low, guttural growl.